This week’s Torah portion, Va-yeitzei, deals, in part, with Rachel’s inability to bear children and the jealousy that arises between the two sisters. The Mishnah says a man is commanded to be fruitful and multiply, but a woman is not. In the same Mishnah, Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroka says that a woman is also commanded to be fruitful and multiply.
The Talmud takes the Mishnah’s majority opinion. Parsing Hebrew grammar, the Talmud concludes that a woman is not commanded to be fruitful and multiply.
In my opinion, this position flies in the face of the many women in the Bible who express disappointment and anger when they can not have children: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel (Rachel yells at Jacob), and Hannah. Infertility is a curse that Michal suffered when she criticized her husband, King David. And Lot’s daughters, thinking that there were no men left in the world, got their father drunk so that he would impregnate them. So much for the Mishnah’s and the Talmud’s position that women are not commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Indeed, men are not able to be fruitful and multiply without a woman.
And that’s maybe the rabbis circumvented the conclusion that a woman is not commanded to be fruitful and multiply. In two instances in the Talmud, identical stories recount a woman who seeks a divorce from her husband because of his inability to father children. (Divorce has financial ramifications, because of the Ketubah.) The husband in each of the stories say that he will not grant the divorce because a woman is not commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Each woman complains to the court that, if the court does not decree a divorce, who will care for her in her old age? If she does not have children, who will bury her? In each of the stories, the court forces the husband to grant a divorce.
In another Talmudic story, a woman was half-slave and half free. Accordingly, she could neither marry a Canaanite nor a Jew. The court forced her master to free her. The court’s reasoning was not she was commanded to be fruitful and multiply, but that her master allowed other men to take liberties with her. Since she knew that could not marry because in the past she engaged in promiscuous activity, the court forced here master to free her to save her and others from sin.
Judaism is a religion of life, and I was amazed at Agudath Israel’s complaining about Governor Cuomo’s restrictions on live, worship services, and I am amazed that the Supreme Court this past Wednesday granted Agudath Israel’s request for an injunction. The woman in the Talmud stories wanted to have children. They wanted to perpetuate life. During the pandemic, large gatherings spread potentially fatal illness. Large religious gatherings in the pandemic are designed to end life. This pandemic will pass, and we need to experience disruptions in our lives so that we may perpetuate life.